Sunday, January 4, 2015

Writing Tips #3: Show vs Tell

Going along with dialogue and whether or not to use contractions, the other big thing (style wise) in physically writing a novel is showing vs. telling. Now I know there is A LOT of advice about showing vs. telling. There are A LOT of authors throwing around the advice of "show don't tell" and this great. Most of the time.

You see if we showed the reader every little thing, every single time we would have novels as big as one of G.R.R Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series. Now before anyone gets in a huff, a bit of backstory: I love reading.

Ever since I learned how to read I delved into everything. At one point I had the entire Goosebumps and Babysitter's Club novels. I was at the library every three weeks (the amount of time you could check out books for) getting at least six books ON TOP of what I had to read for school. I now own well over 1000 books and have read at least 85% of them.
I've also read Song of Ice and Fire. And you know what? I had to force myself to STOP reading SoIF after an hour or two because of how much stuff was in it.

In comparison? I burned through the Inheritance Cycle (Eragon, etc) in a weekend. I finished It (when I was 12) in two weeks. SoIF? Took me a month or more a book. Again, this is coming from someone who's vicariously read for about two decades.

Don't get me wrong: I like the books. I love the concepts. I like the series. Would I read them a second time? Nope. Why? Too much showing. Yes. There CAN be such a thing as too much showing, also know as too much going on, too much description, and too much of a good thing.

As much as I love Stephen King, I almost died reading the first 100 pages of Black House. We didn't see the body (literally) until page 96. PAGE NINETY-SIX. THE HELL? I almost gave up. Almost. The only reason I didn't was because it's King.

No, we don't need to know the backstory of every minor character. No we don't need to know every single detail of every single character's clothing. No we don't need to know what every character ate or who the third uncle of someone's brother was. No we don't need to know every detail of every room in the entire city/town/world.

If it's not necessary to the plot: don't include it. If you can sprinkle the backstory over a few chapters: do that and not a massive info dump. Speaking of, I stumbled across a newbie in the fantasy writing genre last year. His prologue? Ten or more pages of history. His first page of the first chapter? A description of what his main character looked like, where he was, and his family line. Did I continue reading the novel? HELL NO. Why? Too much history, too much description, just TOO MUCH.

Also, the way someone reactions in a situation might be taken differently depending on a reader's experience. An author famous for "show don't tell" says don't tell the reader a person thinks someone likes them, show it. So Jenny kicks off a locker, huffs, and walks away. Oh. So she's angry? Nope. That was meant to show she might like the other character. Yeah.

See, how I see the world and how you see the world is different. So what you might think displays affection, I might take as something else entirely. Yes, there are general body cues most people employ on instinct. I suggest picking up Body Language for Dummies to see what those cues are so you don't make someone think someone's angry when they're supposed to be showing affection.

Furthering, do I need to know exactly how a bullet is leaving the barrel of the gun and how the blood sprays precisely across fallen snow (or what have you)? Nope. Tell me a character shot another character. Don't go into a four page description of a character pulling back the trigger, the barrel pulling back, hearing the sound, his vision tunneling, watching as the bullet leaves the chamber, watching it strike the victim, seeing the guy falling and his blood spraying, the smoke coming out of the see where I'm going with this, right?

Yes, it's totally okay to enter the five senses into your scenes but not every sense, every time, and certainly not for every character. Unless you're G.R.R Martin or Stephen King your book will be dropped before you finish a scene.

Like everything else, showing vs telling is a delicate balance and it completely depends on YOU as an author. It's YOUR voice, not King or Martin's. It's YOUR story, not someone else's. So show and tell as much as you want. If YOU feel it's not enough then change it until it is. Get some friends to read it and tell you what they think about your voice.

There is no set numerical rule for how much you show and how much you tell. Again, you've got to figure it out for yourself through trial and error. Generally speaking: if you're going over 100K and aren't half way through your story? You've got too much going on in one book and you're showing way too much.

Until next time: thoughts, comments, rages, rants, questions, and out-right insults can be directed to the comments section.

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